Local Organising, National Change: Irish Rural Electrification

"I'm telling yis, the electric's in here somewhere"
Pic from kieranmccarthy.ie

The Shannon scheme of the 1920s was Ireland’s great leap forward. With its completion, the lights went on up and down the country. Or at least in the cities and bigger towns they did. But by the end of the second world war fully two thirds of a 3 million population were still without power to the home, the reason, good clean country living.

Rural electrification was very much down the list of political priorities. Significant forces opposed electrification, and even supporters of the scheme often had motives that were less than inclusive. A number of forces were at play here

  • The Catholic Social Movement (rural fundamentalists)
  • The Gaelic League (cultural fundamentalists)
  • De Velera’s discourse legacy of self-sufficiency (never, ever realised IMO)
  • Catholic fear of socialism and individualism (a fear not confined to the shores of Ireland).

Many of these forces, certainly during the first half of the 20th century, presented cities in Ireland as being of “foreign” culture, a local Other to be shunned. Yet despite these interests, despite a country with less than zero budget following WWII, despite the requirement of one million wooden poles (surely more wood than there were trees in the country), the job of the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES) got the go-ahead. To study how is a fascinating examination of social, technical and cultural change. Ultimately 1.75m people were served by the scheme, 2% in towns and villages, the rest in open country, illustrating just how scattered the population at the time was.

The Structure of Change

Let’s examine the organisational and geographical makeup of the the Rural Electrification Organisation (REO). Significant from the start is the fact that the REO was almost a totally independent organisation from the national electrical utility (the ESB), which itself was a semi-state profit making (in theory) enterprise. The toughest initial hurdle to overcome was the granting of subsidy from central government, but once achieved, the REO was at the races. And because it was hived off from its parent, it could make big ambitious decisions quickly. The first of these was to decentralise as much of the design and implementation process as possible. There was some central procurement, such as wood from Finland, and knowledge sharing, but little else.

Ireland was broken into ten regional hubs.

  • Athlone
  • Cork (rural)
  • Dublin (rural)
  • Dundalk
  • Galway
  • Limerick
  • Portlaoise
  • Sligo
  • Tralee
  • Waterford

Each of the district REO offices had three divisions, materials, technical and development The latter was essentially a consumer outreach/care department, which was to play a hugely important role on the ground. Located in each district REO office was a Rural Organisation Engineer (ROE) who supervised three to five crews. The crews were the teams of skilled workers, linesmen, engineers and between forty and one hundred hyper local casual labourers, the men who got their hands dirty. At its peak the scheme had ongoing simultaneous operations in up to fifty locations around the country.

The parish was the granular unit of geography each crew worked on, typically 25-30 square miles, containing 300-500 premises. A crew would move into a parish to start the electrification work, opening a local office, bringing with it 40 REO staff, and hiring 40-100 locals. This movement of labour, knowledge and culture for Ireland at the time was unprecedented. Not only did the crews bring with them light, heat and the ability for shops to sell ice-cream for the first time, they brought employment, an influx of men from around the country (with obvious consequences) and a power structure that up until now had centred around the local parish priest.

Typically it would take six months to wire up a parish, or at least those who had opted in. Prior to a crew moving in, advance survey work would be done to ascertain which premises in the parish wanted to be connected. Parishes with a large number of potential customers were connected first, or at least that was how it was meant to work, petty local and national corruption had a part to play too. Séan Lemass for example pushed many Gaelteacht (Irish speaking) areas to the head of the queue. And even with favours, local parish refusniks could hold up work for years creating pockets of darkness in an ever increasing quilt of light over Ireland’s landscape.

Culture and impacts

I hope to see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer, she will enquire not so much about the number of cows but rather concerning the electrical appliances she will require before she gives her consent including not merely electric light, but a water heater, an electric clothes boiler, a vacuum cleaner and even a refrigerator.

Seán Lemass, Dáil debate, March 7th 1945.

Rural Ireland was not a cash society. Farmers didn’t have bills to pay, for anything. They didn’t make money, they didn’t spend it. Electricity was the cultural intervention that was to change that forever, for the first time, farmers were being asked to make a regular payment for something initially they thought they did not need. Perhaps this shift, more than any other single impact, drew rural and urban Ireland closer together, the socio-technical co-prodution of society plain to see.

But the biggest impact overall was probably on Mná na hÉireann, the women of Ireland. No longer did they have the drudgery of fetching dozens of buckets of water from the well (Ireland at the time was renowned for its small bucket size), electricity allowed for the widespread introduction of motor powered pumps, thus water straight to the kitchen. Which meant of course that all of a sudden, women had some free time on their hands. To listen to the wireless and even, in the 60s, to watch TV.

The BBC and RTÉ broadcast their first radio services within four years during the 1920s. The BBC was churning out television by the mid thirties, yet it was not until after the bulk of the RES’s work was done, 1961, that Ireland’s first TV service was launched. And anyone who has spent time watching RTÉ’s subsequent output will admit that the state broadcaster is still someway behind its Anglo Saxon neighbour.

In 1951 73% of Ireland’s 200,000 male farmers were over 45. A quarter of these were unmarried and less than 5% had attended secondary school. There were no socio-economic development agencies for these people and outward rural migration was huge. It was these people, generally subsistence farmers who didn’t make money, but similarly had next to no outgoing costs, that the folk from the RES had to convince. And it was the bringing into the electrical fold of these farmers that was to allow Ireland enter the EEC in 1973, and finally, by the 1980s, start questioning societies power structures, that had for so long kept Ireland a small, dank, inward looking place.

Lesson 1: Organising for a new modernity

Some lessons. In my piece on capital projects at a time of empty treasuries I sought to make the point that big ambitious projects . Classic New Deal territory. I think the lessons of Irish rural electrification are slightly more subtle, but perhaps more important, certainly for campaigners. The organisation and execution of the REO was at this 66 year juncture, simply phenomenal.

  1. Follow a vision, and you can affect real societal change.
  2. Local counts. Change does not have to come from the centre. It can and often does come from the dispersed bottom. The REO harnessed this in hundreds of Irish communities, it showed off a better tomorrow individually at local level and millions bought in. There was no nationwide advertising campaign, or celebrity endorsements. The work was done on the ground, parish by parish.
  3. Be incessant, go where change is actually wanted first, then return to the neigh-sayers.
  4. This future probably exists somewhere right now. Find it, bring it home.
  5. This is going to take a while. So what. Arguments at the time that this would be a 70-80 year project. These weren’t actually ridiculous, the final offshore island to be turned on finally got the electrics only as recently as 2002. But the majority of the work was done in a 15 time scale. But 15 years seems like an eternity in the lifecycle of a campaign, but if we’re to think big, we’re going to have to start thinking long.
  6. Values, beliefs and getting the job done. If someone has some MSc or PhD time to spare maybe they could go find out whether it was Common Cause type belief interventions or Maslovian needs selling that did it for the REO. The rest of us can just get on with getting the job done.

Lesson 2: The history of cities

Maybe its time we looked again at distributed dwelling patterns in rural communities. This deserves a full post but here’s the quick overview. The telling of the story of the flight to the city is for the most part painted as a straight forward march of progress. Since the industrial revolution all roads have led to the metropolis. That billions have walked this road is presented as a fait acompli. It’s not. Three articles over the last month give some insight.

So maybe, the lessons of rural electrification need to be retold, maybe this race to urbanity that we are running is treadmill going nowhere. It certainly cannot be any harm in exploring the alternatives, which may well begin with a new form of electrification.